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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Sen. Chris Dodd foresees "a tough climb" in Utah but not an impossible climb. "We have a chance ... if we have the right nominee."

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, Democratic presidential candidate, knows how to rouse a crowd, even one in a sweltering auditorium: Promise to bring American troops home starting next March.

The thousand or so attendees to the Utah Democratic Party's organizing convention rose as one to give Dodd a cheering ovation Saturday when he called for the troop withdrawal deadline, adding that America's soldiers in the Iraq war had not failed us but President Bush's war policy certainly has.

Dodd's convention speech at Skyline High School, which had no air conditioning as temperatures in the auditorium climbed, ended a busy weekend for Utah's minority party.

Friday night during a party fund-raiser, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, also a presidential candidate, addressed Democrats.

Party chairman Wayne Holland, who was re-elected without opposition Saturday to another two-year term, said this summer will see four Democratic presidential candidates in Utah — something that has never happened before.

His optimism seemed to echo that of the party's faithful, who allowed three of their four executive officers to be re-elected without a challenger. The only change made to the party's leadership was the election of former Salt Lake County chairwoman Megan Risbon as the party's treasurer.

In a press conference after his speech, Dodd said he's aware "it will be a hard climb" for a Democrat to win Utah in 2008. Utahns have not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson, who won the presidency in 1964.

But times have changed, said Dodd, who is married to former Utahn Jackie Clegg, who met Dodd almost 20 years ago when she was working in former-U.S. Jake Garn's office and Garn hosted a charity fund-raising Senate ski event in Park City.

"The jury is still out on this (presidential) race. We can lose this race if we don't have the right person" as the Democratic nominee, Dodd said.

Even with a very unpopular GOP president in office and fresh off major Democratic wins in the 2006 mid-term elections, Democrats could still lose the 2008 presidential race.

"The question is who is prepared to lead the country. I am," said Dodd, a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. "And while it is a tough climb here in Utah, I know that, I don't think it is an impossible climb. We have a chance to make our case if we have the right nominee, who can reach across these lines in our nation and make a case in positive and constructive terms. You have to have the ability to reach and work with people you don't necessarily agree with. And I've done that."

Dodd disagrees with Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards' idea of limiting the number of Democratic candidates in presidential debates now being held across the country.

"What I object to — find insulting — is that we are limited to 30-second sound bites" on important issues, like the genocide in Darfur. "It is like throwing bumper stickers at each other."

Dodd said his support is building in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he doesn't have to win but just have a good showing to keep his presidential campaign alive.

And every state in the party nomination race is important, including Utah, he added.

Localizing his idea of a national service program for younger and older Americans, Dodd said as president he would accept an LDS missionary's two-year church service as part of his broad, comprehensive American volunteer program.

All high school students would be expected to donate at least 100 hours of community service before they graduate; he would increase the current AmeriCorp program from 150,000 to 1 million people, double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011, and start new and aggressive volunteer programs for all walks of American life.

While President Bush "wasted" the opportunity to bring Americans together, among themselves and in the greater world, following 9/11, Dodd said his large volunteer program would bring back a feeling of "shared experience" to the country.

"The ground is shifting" under Congress concerning the Iraq war, he said. "The American people are way out in front of Congress" in demanding that the troops come home and that Iraqis settle their problems themselves.

Doesn't he worry that the Iraqi situation would get worse if American troops left soon?

"How could it get any worse? More chaotic? How? We may get better results" with Americans gone from the war-torn nation, Dodd said. He said he will offer an amendment during next week's Pentagon-funding debate that would cut off troop funds in Iraq by next March, and he believes a number of Democratic and Republican senators will vote for it.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com, jloftin@desnews.com